My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class
Science teachers must make their subject relevant to students' lives by tackling religion and ethics, argues Arri Eisen.
December 15th, 2011
10:48 AM ET

My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class

Editor's note: Arri Eisen, PhD., is professor of pedagogy at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Department of Biology, and Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

A referendum that would have restricted in vitro fertilization in Mississippi, disagreements on the causes of global warming, the question of how to allot health care resources for desperate cases at the beginning or end of life.

Many of today's headlines and hyper-polarized political debates happen at the borders of science and society, especially where science meets ethics and religion.

At the same time, in at what first appears to be in an unrelated domain, President Barack Obama and others call for more and better science education in America to compete in innovation with rising giants India and China. This at a time when American science literacy appears to be decreasing, and even students who like science drop like flies from that pursuit once they hit college and its huge introductory lecture courses.

Is it possible that rethinking the ethical calculus of how we teach science could enhance the pool of future scientists and enrich the quality of conversation around controversial issues?

What’s the connection? Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world. This is a cell and these are its parts; memorize them and their functions. This is the human body and these are the different systems of which it is composed.

Such facts are important, but without a meaningful context (cell functions gone awry can cause cancer; all the body systems talk to each other, so depression can affect your cardiovascular system) such information has little real substance and is poorly retained.

This approach violates the first rule of good teaching: Integrate the information into your students’ lives and worldviews, including those based in religion or ethical systems, and translate it into something they can connect with and use. Science has an especially rich and often fraught role to play in society; if we don’t at least acknowledge this we imply it is unimportant.

Not surprisingly, studies show that when teachers do integrate science knowledge into students' lives, the students learn the science better.

But rather than incentivize teaching innovation that would allow science educators to discuss religion and ethics –- for example, creationism in light of evolution and vice versa, or the scientific and ethical implications of stem cells and in vitro fertilization – many teachers are afraid to even mention these issues, despite their importance, for fear of losing their jobs.

The classic example is the public school biology teacher without tenure who, understandably, finds it much easier to skip any discussion of evolution because of its potential controversial nature. This would be OK except for the small detail that evolution is the fundamental, underlying principle of all biology.

I teach biology at a private university. When I ask students in my cell biology course, “How many of you believe in evolution?” almost all of them raise their hands. When I ask them, “How many of you think something in addition to evolution accounts for humans being on earth as we now exist?” almost all of them raise their hands.

Two inconsistent thoughts coexist without an attempt to reconcile or integrate them. It is this kind of dissonance of fundamental beliefs and science that good education should address and help explore, and certainly not ignore. Only when science educators can proactively engage all societal elephants in the room and illustrate science's relatively limited power will two vitally important things happen:

First, as they are forming their beliefs — whatever they may be — students will be aware of the nature of science and its relation to complex ethical and religious issues. That means they’ll better appreciate different types of evidence and will be more likely to argue from and about that evidence rather than from emotion. Second, more students initially interested in science will continue to pursue it through college because they will better see its value and importance to the big issues and will learn science better.

How to accomplish this? How to break the vicious circle? One way is to frame the benefits differently — economic competition and innovation, national security, improved learning, or more substantial political debate — for different constituencies. For example, perhaps a politically conservative, religious audience might appreciate the importance of good science education through the lens of its importance to the economy or national security.

Another break in the circle is to help teachers learn how to teach science in context more effectively. I often find that simply acknowledging the ethical or religious issue relaxes students; a few others  have explored approaches for better integration of these issues.

In my cell biology course, we investigate the biology and chemistry of a cell surface receptor that helps induce good feelings in us when it binds to a chemical compound found in incense; this may help explain why so many different cultures and religions have independently evolved the use of incense in their ceremonies and rituals.

We discuss the detailed cellular and molecular biology of the research in the context of ritual; the students report this opens a door that’s usually closed between those two sides of their minds. Religious students, who say they often feel their beliefs are ignored or belittled on campus, find this discussion especially welcome and thought-provoking.

High school educators in Wisconsin showed that students who read original texts from Darwin and intelligent-design scholars, and discussing those texts, critically learned evolution better (without rejection of other worldviews) than those taught it in the traditional didactic manner. Teaching potentially controversial science can work if done in an interactive, engaging fashion and in a rich historical and societal context.

Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons for America’s polarized politics and decreasing science literacy and innovation that go beyond just teaching science better. But sometimes a little creative wrestling with and engagement in systems and programs that already exist can make a difference.

Once I offered the opportunity for anyone in the cell biology course to simultaneously take a seminar course focusing on the societal and ethical implications of the biology discussed in the cell course. Half the biology class wanted to enroll in the seminar.

A dozen students — all future scientists and health care workers — wound up in the course, representing seven different religions and traditions, from Christianity to Jainism to Judaism.

Students were amazed so many of their peers took religion seriously, and those students tell me that the conversations and debates we had in the course, together with the seminar, resonate to this day. Many say science is now woven together with ethics and religion in their minds; they can’t think about biology without thinking about its meaning in the greater context.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arri Eisen.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Education • Opinion

soundoff (2,297 Responses)
  1. Paul

    Keep religion out of science class. Ethics might be something the scientists want to read up about it.
    We don't need religion in science class to be better scientists, either our youth is smart enough to be better than Chinese and Indian science students or they aren't. Religion will not help them

    December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  2. Clint

    I'm honestly shocked by the staggering amount of ignorance in these comments. To think that religion and science are necessarily mutually exclusive is close-minded (see scholasticism).

    If anyone think pithy quips can help kids learn to embrace science, I'd question how far your sacrasm has progressed the American educational system in the past decade. If anyone is going to be able to cut through the polarization and encourage critical thinking, they're going to have to grant some level of intellectual respect to the minds that they're trying to open.

    The article doesn't recommend memorizing Bible verses. It recommends making science mean something rather than being a sterile series of flash cards. One way to do this is to dig in to issues that many teachers avoid and engage students' beliefs. If done correctly, the classroom can be a sanctuary for students to articulate dissenting views, critically analyze their own beliefs and understand them. By making religion taboo, we only kick the can down the road. By forcing students to face what we know as science (germ theory, observed evolution, etc.), it provides an evidence-based foundation for examining religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Jeebus

      There are plenty courses that teach about religion and religious thought and there are many other ways of providing life "context" in science courses. Religion would just undermine and water down science. It has no place in the science class.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      If "Religion" wasn't to continue to exist, it will have to adapt to what Humans have learned, and continue to discover. Similar to the discoveries of Magellan and Columbus, the "map" keeps changing, and, thus, religions have to re-think their beliefs. We have learned that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, as was believed by our Ancestors. So – there may have to be some re-writing of those "good" books.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Seriously ...

      Science already means something: it means exploring the natural world through unbiased eyes, to see what is there, to contemplate it, to create a theory and then attempt to proof or disproof that theory. If you put faith based ideas into it your unbiased perspective goes out the window.
      Besides, it would be unfair for religion to be given a sideline in scientific classes. There are so many religions that there is no way that all of them could be added to the scientific curriculum and have them explored in depth. They should be getting their own curriculum under Humanities. If we are to add religion we need to add ALL religion of this world and they need to be given equal opportunity. It is impractical to do this by "simply adding them to science".

      December 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • lolwut

      Religion- believing in what it says no matter what, using faith to justify believing in a deity, and picking facts to support your conclusion
      Science- constantly changing and adapting to new information and research, using logic, reason, and sound data to make accurate predictions, and gathering facts before ever coming to a conclusion

      December 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  3. REH

    A better idea would be to teach ethics in churches instead of their dogma.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  4. Jeff Swanson

    Keep religion in the church and science in the classroom. The 2 are like oil and water and the 1% keep's us fighting about this garbage while they send their kids to private schools. Time to Rise Up, Support the 1/16/12 OCCUPY The Capital.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Steve Monk

    Religion is neither science nor the source of ethics. Ethics come from our culture. Each culture is influenced by its own unique history. Ethics in science class, Yes, I'm all for it. Religion in science class should be limited to the social sciences and then only when identified as the grand placebo effect it is.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      I propose that Ethics exists without religion. As one primitive Man observes his world, the rules of Nature become apparent by simple trial & error feedback. Because of these "rules" so, also, do the rules that apply to social cohabitation. And, unless you want to always be at war with your own family, you will have to abide by those rules, from wench comes Ethics. If you cheat Ethics, you risk starting another war. (maybe some "modern" Men need to learn this lesson)

      December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  6. Chris

    It's actually not correct to say that science is only based on facts. Many experimental observations are fit into a framework that explains reality, but some of this is open to interpretation. One example is explanations of quantum mechanics. However, a basic tenet of science that distinguishes it wholly from religion is that any idea, hypothesis, and scientific theory is inherently falsifiable by experiment. Religion, on the other hand, can never be shown to be "false" as its basic tenet is faith which is belief without fact, by definition. Hard to see a way to academically join the two outside a philosophy class...

    December 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      none of the religions are based on faith and imagination alone. They say faith is the key important factor, but read their scriptures. Every major religion has some sort of god or miracle worker interacting with the world, being tested and blessed by god even before they've proven themselves, even after they've fallen. Samson had his strength. Moses parted the sea. Jesus raised the dead. Siddhartha became the Buddha. It goes on and on.

      There's literally a difference between dogma and observation in most religions.
      You have to suspend disbelief to and have 'faith' in a religion. But that's also very poor decision making. Peer pressure. Mob mentality. If god is all powerful, everywhere and all knowing, would we really need someone to tell us about it? Think about it. They say god wants us to have faith and just believe in the bible, for example, and follow what it says. And yet IN the bible god doesn't say that and instead interacts quite directly with sometimes apparently random people.

      it's pretty bold faced, if you ask me. Ballsy. Sadly, im not surprised so many people don't connect the dots themselves : (

      December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  7. kyactivist

    No, science is based on empiricism while religion is based on non-provable faith. To mix the two is ridiculous and unscientific, ethics is a study that should be left up to philosophy and religion, science is the pursuit of pure knowledge and fact.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  8. Eric Moore

    This guy knows so much about science, he thinks there is still an open question as to the cause of global warming. He lost me there.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  9. Zachariah

    There is a fairly large issue with this approach, and it is that science strongly indicates that the universe has no causal agency. That is, there is no absolute purpose for the existence of anything. Morality and ethics, purely anthropocentric views, are not woven into the fabric of the universe. Religions all teach the opposite: that this world is created for us. Religious people tend to perceive this fundamental friction correctly. And they also correctly interpret the scientific outlook as giving greater creedence to humanist ethics than religious doctrine.
    I Incorporating religious conversations at the undergraduate level can work because of the selected audience. The parents of elementary and high school students, however, will oppose ethical instruction from a sociological perspective because it gives results in direct contradiction to many traditional values.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  10. matthew

    "Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world." What?? What rocks does CNN move to find idiots like this?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  11. AtlantaMan

    Science is an outer search. "Real" Religion is an inner search. There is no question of mixing the two. Both already are similar-two sides of same phenomenon. Anyways, before you start mixing the two, I would like to know what you mean when you say "religion". I bet you are talking of Christianity. What about all the other religions? There are more than 300 of them, my friend. And they all disagree on almost all points from start to finish. Can you come up with a thing called "Relgion" out of these confliciting religions. So, the first thing for you to do is to come up with an un-biased understanding of what Religion really mean. Few pointers for folks out there who like open exploration. Science is a search in the outerworld; Religion is the search within oneself. Both are same kind of search. Now, Science doesn't believe in anything, it simply explores. Similarly, an authentic inner search require that you don;t believe, rather explore openly. This is the kind of approach Jesus took, Buddha took. They didn't believe in anything, just like the approach of science . You experiment and see it for yourself. So, my friend.. go back and read for yourself what you are proposing here.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  12. Deep North

    Selective Evolution.....that's why there are still lower primates?????

    December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • wayne317

      Nothing is more evolved than anything else. Keep your ignorance to yourself.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  13. GrownUp

    Science is not about facts; it also is about faith. Remember just 20 years ago scientists believed that the universe was slowing down it's expansion because of the pull of gravity from celestial bodies. This makes sense and sounds reasonalbe, logical, etc. Therefore, the scientific community presented this as "fact" to the public. But, what happened? Now, they are telling us the universe is accelerating it's expansion and they do NOT know why. So, they created 2 new theories (dark matter and dark energy) which will no doubt be presented as "fact" in due time. My point is that the previous belief was presented as "fact" but now the "fact" has been disproven. Do scientists really know anything?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Zachariah

      You are incorrectly interpreting limitations at the edge of human knowledge as lack of overall knowledge. A commedian, Dara O'Briain, has put it better than I can: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDYba0m6ztE

      December 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Jeff

      The difference, though, is that while scientists think that what they know is fact, they also realize that they might be wrong. Scientists as a group (there are exceptions to the rule, obviously) are open to change as they know above all else that what they think they know might be wrong. Religious nuts refuse to believe that they might be wrong.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • thedoctor

      GrownUp, I'm sorry, but you've missed the point completely. Science is not about faith. It is about what you can prove. If someone (actually a lot of someones) can prove otherwise, then we go with that. Don't confuse hypothesis with faith.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • D Russell

      Your confusion clearly shows that you do not understand science at all. Science never says that it has absolute 'facts' – the closest it gets to that are what we call Laws. All scientists understand that the current understanding of anything is open to change if evidence supports this change. See how simple that concept is? Science is a about the preponderance of evidence. That you get angry or feel betrayed or think less of science when they allow evidence to change the generally accepted understanding, indicates to me that you never really understood science at all.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Qublai

      And that is PRECISELY why science will show us the way – eventually. Because science is open; it admits it was on the wrong track the moment it finds contrary evidence. Religion on the other hand is based on DOGMA, and that is why it is doomed.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • wayne317

      It already has been said, but that is the difference between the two.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Psalms 14:1

      Scientists have been presenting the "Theory of Evolution" for decades as fact although it is still a theory (an unproved hypothesis). This they do because they think the theory of Evolution gives them an excuse not to be accountable to our Creator.

      Hey... what if there is no creator? Hmm... we like that idea... now we are not accountable to anyone and can do whatever we want to... Remember... Survival of the fittest!

      However... of course everyone is still accountable to our Creator.

      I challenge anyone to take apart a modern watch and throw all of the pieces into a clothes dryer. Turn it on. How long will it take before it becomes a working watch set to the correct time?
      Of course it will never happen. Yet the bunny rabbit is far more complex and just happened by chance? along with all of the other creatures on this earth?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Jeff

      @Psalms If you think evolution and natural selection is completely by chance then you obviously know nothing of the theory. Maybe educate yourself a little bit before making such a wild claim.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • RandomPoster

      At least scientists acknowledge their mistakes and correct them in order to teach the truth unlike the church which likes to perpetuate lies and dogma.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Aaron

      I believe what you are referring to as "facts" are what the scientific community calls scientific theory. While, elements within scientific theories are proven wrong over time, many elements of scientific theory are confirmed as well. Yes, we do know many things about our world and the universe through science. However, we also hypothesize about why something is the way it is, only to find out later that was incorrect.

      Ironically, religion is exactly that. People thousands of years ago created explanations concerning the creation of the earth, its inhabitants, and the stars above based on their current level of knowledge. Unfortunately, they conflated these explanations with ethics and spun it into something we now call religion.

      One must be quite ignorant to claim that the teachings found in religious texts account for an accurate explanation of the creation of organic matter.

      One must be quite ignorant to claim that science has taught us nothing or that we have learned nothing from scientific exploration.

      It is quite possible something greater than us exists. However, to attempt to explain the unexplainable or follow the hollow explanations of those who lived thousands of years ago is the greatest of fallacies.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • wayne317

      @Psalms 14:1

      There are plenty of christians and christian scientists that accept evolution. What you are presenting is a logical fallacy known as a false delimma.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Aaron


      Seriously? This is what you were taught? Your ignorance is astonishing. Evolution is not a theory. Evolution is proven fact. We have traced many species through evolution that are now extinct.

      Your analogy of the rabbit and the watch is absurd. The rabbit has not always been on earth. The rabbit evolved from smaller celled species over millions of years, like all other multi-celled organisms. It is not as if the parts of the rabbit were all randomly thrown together. An organic creature in the modern world has developed through millions of years of adaptation to its surroundings. That is the "chance" you speak of. It did not happen over night with the swirl of a wand by some mythical "creator" that tells humans how to behave....

      December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  14. chris

    Wow. some of these comments remind me of animals with tunnel vision. You see the words religion, science, and class and that sends you off into a hysteria.

    Believe it or not, discussing religion with science can be an educational discussion. Who are you to say that something other than science exists, when you yourself can't possibly comprehend many of the complexities of our universe. This writer isn't trying to suggest we should have Christianity, or islam, or Judaism class at the same time as Biology. He is suggesting we use people's religious beliefs to discuss science within a larger context. Of course that could never happen because as soon as something not "scientific" is said in a classroom there will be thousands of disgruntled animals spewing hate about how no beliefs are allowed other than what the choose to be true.

    Hundreds of years ago people just like you treated Copernicus and Galileo the same way. Now where are we?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Sophia

      We have enough "theory" in science without adding sky king talk. I remember my teachers spending two minutes discussing what is now known as "creationism". Mr. Dillon said "who says god can't make a day a thousand years long?" and that was all that was said. The idea that we have to have religion in a science class is one step closer to a theocracy, and one step closer to the time when the wrong religion could get you killed in America (again). Ethics? Sure. But no boogabooga please.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  15. JeffinIL

    Evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life. The BS argument used by religion is that evolution does attempt that. Evolution only explains how life adapts to survive changing conditions and gives rise to new species over time. The scientific theories about the origins of life are NOT included in evolution. The argument should be creation theory vs origin of life theory, not creationism vs evolution. It's apples and oranges.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      The problem is evolution being true makes the Genesis creation story false.
      If the Genesis creation story is false, then the Adam and Eve story is also false.
      If the Adam and Eve story is false, then original sin is also false.
      If original sin is false, then the reason given for the virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection is false.

      See how the house of cards tumbles?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • JeffinIL

      It only crumbles if one is a literalist. Most theologians aren't. Unfortunately, most fundamentalists are, and most Christians don't actually read the bible.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  16. OrangeW3dge

    I believe there is a God. I believe that he created the Cosmos. And I believe that He intervenes in our daily lives. But now I'm mad. Why didn't He tell us this stuff sooner. And what's with all these wars? Why do some of us have to suffer with lower than average intelligence or physical defects. Why aren't my kids taking school seriously, and how come everybody is so mean to each other? If there really is a Higgs boson, where is it and why doesn't He just point it out?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • RandomPoster

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?” – Epicurus

      December 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  17. Positive

    Also, are you going to teach all religions beliefs in the pseudo-science class? Christian, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhist, etc? If not, who gets to decide whose religious beliefs are taught? Please stop trying to push religion into what should be a strictly evidence based science class. If you succeed, it's no longer science.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  18. Ani

    If religion should be included in science class, then science should be included in religion courses. After all, there are so many scientific advances that have been halted or altered due to religions around the globe, and I think that should be objectively expressed in religion courses if religious views are going to be expressed in science courses. As a rule, the science taught in schools and universities adhere to a certain set of societal moralities.
    Bringing in religion would only help to muddle the studies in those particular courses. After all, how do you explain the existence of particles and atoms with religion? "These basic particles are what makes up the universe, but the Bible doesn't mention them, so we are to assume these are fictional"? Mentioning religion is perfectly fine, but tying the two together is becoming an increasingly backwards method

    December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  19. I3IV5

    Yes, that will help science. Put some faith in it. While Chinese students learn science vigorously, american students will write essays on the topic "Do you believe in gravity?".

    December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  20. Lenny Pincus

    I think the author makes a well meaning attempt to fool the hyper religious into believing science has something to offer them. However, the hyper religious will always regard science as the devil's work, and our country will suffer accordingly because of such ignorance.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • PudninTane

      I think you're onto it, Lenny.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.